Who, what and how are we?

man2I’ve encouraged friends to read James Alison’s wonderful book The Joy of Being Wrong. I’m not excited about it because I agree with every claim he makes, but because he articulates so well (in Girardian terms) what human (social) nature is, what salvation amounts to, and how this is all best read in light of the resurrection of Christ. Maybe it’s just because of where I am at the present moment, but I find Alison full of insight.

There will be plenty of opportunity to post passages I agree with. Let me start with an aspect of Alison’s work that I disagree with. In working out his anthropology (Ch 2), Alison rejects transcendental anthropology. A transcendental anthropology views human nature to be constituted as an implicit and irresistible orientation of desire for God. Not that God is always what we consciously or explicitly intend, but that desire is God-given and thus oriented Godward, that is to say, to find its fulfillment in God. This orientation of desire derives from the transcendent presence of God as the immediate ground and end of human being and all human desiring, as well as intrinsic teleology of created nature and the scope of every nature’s possibilities. Human rationality and desire are, you might say, hardwired for God. Think of desire as a kind of aesthetic gravity to consciousness, a ‘power of attraction’ that draws desire to its fulfillment. To say we transcendently desire God is not to say we never set our desires on things other than God; it is to say that in all our desiring, God remains the truest end and fulfillment of that desire and that all desire is truly fulfilled when we intentionally make God the end of all we do (Col 3.23-24).

That’s my understanding of transcendental anthropology at least. But Alison is suspicious of such talk. I’ll let him explain why (from various portions of his Ch 2) and then respond with a few reflections in an upcoming post. Alison writes:

This, of course, places us on a somewhat different course from any transcendental anthropology, which sees, as a matter of philosophical truth, the human being as imbued with a somehow experienced orientation toward grace and glory and therefore the concrete, contingent, historical acts of salvation (the prophets, the coming of Christ, the existence of the Church, the sacraments) as merely making explicit the universal availability of grace. In such a view, “the historical events, the human acts and images which can alone be the site of supernatural difference, are here reduced to mere signs of a perfect inward self-transcendence, always humanly available.

At this point it seems important to try to indicate why the transcendental element seems unnecessary in a fundamental anthropology…

I do not want to deny…that all Christian anthropology must posit that all humans are, just by the fact of being humans, called to participate in the divine life. However, it seems to me that this theological doctrine is an important human discovery made in the light of the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth and is part of a discovery that we are, in fact, quite different from what we normally think we are. That is to say, the doctrine of the universal vocation to theiosis is itself part of the discovery of salvation as a difficult process worked out in hope, in which we hope to become something which we are not, or are scarcely, now.

If we detach the doctrine of the universal vocation to theiosis from the element of discovery in hope of something which contradicts our daily lived experience and turn it into a quasi-philosophical description of what we all are, inescapably, then we merely transform the doctrine of the security of salvation…into a universal philosophical principle. This means, in theological terms, that a subtle form of anonymous semi-Pelagianism, and thus shortcuts the way in which discovery of the universality of the call to theiosis is, for each of its participants, a radical conversion and part of the revelation of salvation.

desire1

Let me therefore try to set out the way in which the anthropology I have been trying to set out differs from this (and the answer is, only very, very slightly). The human being is constituted by what is other than himself or herself, and is always utterly related to this other which is anterior to himself or herself. The other I’m talking about is, of course, the human, social, cultural, material, environmental other proper to our planet. It is this other than has forged language, memory, will, and the capacity to relate to the other. So much might reasonably be recognized by anyone, independent of religious conviction. However, that is not to say that the anthropology I have been setting out could have been set out except from a theological perspective. In fact, it was a very particular set of contingent historical actions, lives, and circumstances that made it possible to perceive the role of the victim as foundational to human being, contingent actions involving a reversal of perspective on the relation of any one of us to that victim. That is to say, it was a particular set of historical events which made it possible fully to recognize the other which forms us. And it made it possible to recognize this precisely in the simultaneous act of revealing that there was a different sort of other that could form us in a different sort of way: that is to say, there is a different perspective on the founding murder than that which is connatural to us.

In this way, we can say that every human being is, in fact, constituted by and with an in-built relationality to the other which formed him or her. This other constituted the very possibility of human desire. We can also say that owing to the way in which we are in fact constituted, that desire is rivalistic and builds identity, to a greater or lesser extent, by denial of the alterity, and the anteriority, of the other desire. That is to say, human desire, as we know it, works by grasping and appropriating being rather than receiving it. In this sense, we are all always already locked into the other which forms us in a relationship of acquisitive mimesis, that is, in a relationship of violence which springs from, and leads to, death.

It became possible to understand this (in fact) not from natural rational deduction (though there is nothing inherently incomprehensible about it), but precisely because of the irruption of a novum into the midst of the social other which forms us, a novum which is a revelation of a different sort of Other, and Other that is completely outside any form of rivalistic desire and that made itself historically present as a self-giving and forgiving victim. This self-given victim, from outside human mimetic rivalry, revealed precisely that the death-locked lie of mimetic rivalry flowing from culture’s hidden victims is not the original mode of desire, but a distortion of it. That which was chronologically original (and seemed to us to be simply natural) is discovered to be logically secondary to an anterior self-giving and creative desire.

…The transformation of our “self” via our constitutive alterity happens not through some universal transcendence, but exactly through the givenness of certain particular historical actions and signs, moving us to produce and reproduce just such historical acts and signs.

…Can we then talk of a universal desiderium naturale, natural desire, for God? Well, once again, only as a result of the acceptance of the revelation that the real source of the anteriority which forms us is a purely nonrivalistic, self-giving desire (love). What we have without that faith is a construction of desire that never breaks out of circles of appropriation and exclusion. It would be wrong to call that desire a natural desire for God. We might properly call it a natural desire for being, but an idolatrous desire being, since we are incapable of merely receiving being. So we go to idolatrous lengths to shore up our fragile sense of being, being prepared to sacrifice the other to save our “self.” What we can observe is that, in any given historical instance, our desire is for things which have become obstacles to God precisely because they are desire appropriatively, by grasping. It is in the transformation of our receptivity that our desire becomes a desire from and for God and is discovered to be such not as something plastered over our distorted desires, but as the real sense behind even those distorted desires, as something anterior to them. It is in this sense that we become sons and daughters of God as we discover that our belonging to, our being held in being by, the other is more secure and original a way of being in the world than our grasping and appropriating things. The tourist grasps and appropriates on his way through, because he knows that these things, these sights, will not be his tomorrow. The dweller in the land does not need to hold on to them, because she knows that they will be there tomorrow, and it is they that have formed her, not she who possesses them. The disiderium naturale is “there” as something that can be recovered.

In this sense I am completely in agreement with J. L. Segundo when he insists that it is quite wrong to see any human construction of values as implicitly pointing toward God simply because they are a human construction of values. Human desire is a good thing because it can in principle be drawn into the desire of God, precisely as human desire, and indeed we know from faith that it was for this that it was created. That does not stop the very condition of possibility of our desire of God (the human structure of desire) being lived without even an implicit reference to the pacific gratuitous other which can transform us into receivers of our being. It is possible for human desire to be lived as idolatry, as complete missing of the point (a “falling short of the glory of God”), an exacerbated desire for metaphysical autonomy, and thus a seeking to appropriate (rather than receive) life for the self, a living from death to death – running from our own death and causing that of others. In this way I hope it is possible to see that the theological anthropology which I have been setting out is in fact well suited to the basic insight of the liberation theologians that the choices is not between theism and atheism, but between the true God (the God of life) and idolatry. This is rather better suited, I would suggest, than a transcendental anthropology, which effectively pre-pardons idolatry without transforming the idolater, without giving him or her the chance of a real restructuring of heart.

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One can see Alison’s main concerns:

  • First, a transcendental anthropology reduces the historical events of salvation history to “mere signs of a perfect inward self-transcendence” which are “always humanly available.”
  • Second, if grace is constitutive of created nature (defining its end and delimiting the scope of its possibilities), then theosis fails to be “the discovery of salvation as a difficult process worked out in hope” in which we “become something we are not.” That is, Alison believes transcendental anthropologies reduce the gospel to a “quasi-philosophical description of what we all [already] are” which he takes to be Pelagian. What we are meant to become, Alison maintains, requires events (Incarnation, Cross, Resurrection) that intrude within the natural order. They are not truths derived philosophically from what can be rationally deduced from contemplating nature, an “unaided outworking of a human dynamic,” for “nothing human could have revealed the constitution of the human consciousness in human victimization.” A radical novum is needed, a divine act which constitutes salvation as a gracious intrusion from outside the scope or reach of human rationality, as opposed to the natural unfolding of dispositions already present in us.
  • Third, it is obviously the case that we do in fact exhaust our desires idolatrously upon false ends “without even an implicit reference to the pacific gratuitous other which can transform us.”
  • Lastly, Alison suggests that a transcendental grace constitutive of nature would “pre-pardon idolatry” and leave us “without…the chance of a real restructuring of the heart.”

I’d love to hear what folks have to say about Alison’s objections to transcendental anthropology. I think he fundamentally misunderstands what is meant by those who see nature sacramentally as shot through with grace from beginning to end, but I’ll try to explore that in an upcoming post.

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The Joy of Being Wrong

alison

Back in the late Spring I found myself reading James Alison, partly from having stumbled into references of him in other books and finally through a friend’s recommendation. I’ve post portions of him here and here. I’m presently reading through his The Joy of Being Wrong (his PhD dissertation), a work of theological anthropology appropriating Girard which “looks at original sin in the light of the Resurrection.” I’m gripped by it and quite moved, not half way through it. This evening I was especially moved by the following passage that zeros in on what ought to be the heart of how we understand the human predicament from which Christ rescues us. Enjoy!

…the sense of the self, the être [“other”]…is always received as a given, when when that preceding givenness, or the reception, is seriously marred by violence of circumstance, or paternal incompetence or ill will. The relationship between the être as received and as acquired by more or less violent appropriation is at the heart of the theology of original sin.

The description I have given leads to an understanding of the human self, the “me” of each of us, as being an unstable structure, one that is changeable, malleable, and other-dependent, whether it likes it or not. The other is always anterior to “me.” It also means…first, that it is desire which engenders the “me” and which brings it, by its movement, into existence; and, second, that desire is mimetic, that is, it moves in imitation of the desire of another.

Since the “me” of each one of us is founded by desire, we cannot say that desire is our own, as though it belongs to some preexistent “me.” It is the other way around. The “me” is radically dependent on the desires whose imitation formed it. This means that there is no “real me” at the bottom of it all, when I’ve scrapped away all the things I’ve learned, all the influences I’ve undergone. Psychology is what goes on between people, not, in the first place, in any particular individual. Having grasped this is what permits Girard…to talk of an interdividual psychology. In more accessible terminology this means that psychological facts have to do with relationships. Psychological problems have to do with broken or disturbed relationships, and psychological wholeness has to do with restoring and mending broken relationships.

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We have, then, in any given human being, a self formed by the desire of another. That desire is lived in rivalistic inflection, what I have called desire of grasping or appropriation. We also have the discovery that the possibility of the existence of any desire at all was an anterior desire that is in no sense rivalistic, which we call the creative love of God. The gratuity of God’s love works precisely and only as self-giving; working to produce in each human a capacity to accept—as purely gratuitous—the self-giving other. The permanent self-giving is more than an offer of self-giving, it is self-giving itself, but it can never be lived as self-giving by humans who grasp and appropriate the other. Grace can be lived only as something permanently gratuitously received. The great anthropological transformation, therefore, is of the way in which we move from being constituted by an anterior desire which moves us into deadlock, by grasping and appropriating our sense of being, to being constituted by a self-giving other than can be received only as constantly and perpetually self-giving, as gratuitous, and therefore never grasped, never appropriated, but only received and shared. If it is true to say that it is more blessed to given than to receive, this is because we are the sort of creatures who can only properly (gratuitously) give as part of an imitation of a gratuitous reception. Real giving and real receiving are a mutually structuring reality. We are talking of the person who is beginning to be empowered to move from feeling that society, the others, owe him something, toward being able to be toward other people—to act out for them—what they think is owed to them.

treegift

What this means is that the gratuitous self-giving of God is always present contiguous to, and subversive of, any given now, and it is the gratuitous presence which has made itself explicit in concrete human historical circumstances. It is not universal human self-transcendence which makes itself explicit in the events and narrations of salvation, but the universally present self-giving of God, enabling us to become receivers, rather than graspers, of the other which forms us, revealed as purely gratuitous. The problem between intrinsicist and extrinsicist accounts of grace is not a problem, in the first place, of the theology of grace, but one of the anthropology of reception. The dilemma between grace as somehow “owed” to a human and grace as somehow “already imbued in the human” shows that the discussion is taking place entirely within an anthropology of grasping and appropriating and is not focusing on the necessary gratuity of the transformation into gratuitous receivers of what remains lived in gratuity. One of the things revealed by the doctrine of original sin is that it is our capacity to receive gratuitously that was damaged in the fall; not our capacity to receive, because we have to receive in order to exist, but our capacity to receive gratuitously, which is the only which in which we can share in divine life, because that life can never be other than gratuitous. (Bold mine)

Can we then talk of a universal desiderium natural, natural desire, for God? Well, once again, only as a result of the acceptance of the revelation that the real source of the anteriority which forms us is a purely nonrivalistic, self-giving desire (love). What we have without that faith is a construction of desire that never breaks out of circles of appropriation and exclusion. It would be wrong to call that desire a natural desire for God [Tom: In Alison’s terms perhaps not “natural,” but natural nonetheless in the sense that what Alison says is the “source” of that desire (divine desire/love) is not the past event of God’s having created the world, but the abiding, presence of that desire as God creatively present in sustaining us]. We might properly call it a natural desire for being, but an idolatrous desire being, since we are incapable of merely receiving being. So we go to idolatrous lengths to shore up our fragile sense of being, being prepared to sacrifice the other to save our “self.” What we can observe is that, in any given historical instance, our desire is for things which have become obstacles to God precisely because they are desire appropriatively, by grasping. It is in the transformation of our receptivity that our desire becomes a desire from and for God and is discovered to be such not as something plastered over our distorted desires, but as the real sense behind even those distorted desires, as something anterior to them. It is in this sense that we become sons and daughters of God as we discover that our belonging to, our being held in being by, the other is more secure and original a way of being in the world than our grasping and appropriating things. The tourist grasps and appropriates on his way through, because he knows that these things, these sights, will not be his tomorrow. The dweller in the land does not need to hold on to them, because she knows that they will be there tomorrow, and it is they that have formed her, not she who possesses them.

There are hints in this passage of a more extended treatment by Alison in this chapter that challenges any transcendental reading of desire, the sort of implicit, teleological orientation of desire toward God that one finds defended by David Bentley Hart for example. I’ll do a separate post of Alison’s position on this. It’s one aspect of his anthropology I would disagree with. But overall, Alison has recast the ‘original sin’ discussion for me in a powerful way.

God takes responsibility for sin – or not.

spider2 - CopyBack in late spring/early summer of this year reviews of Boyd’s CWG began to surface and online discussion of the book took off. Of the reviews that were published online at the time, I don’t recall any that gave CWG all-around thumbs up. Some who passionately defend a non-violent view of the atonement nevertheless had serious concerns about core arguments and implications of Greg’s project. I suspect that has changed some, I don’t know. I’m not following the reviews at this point. I posted my own support for points I thought Greg made well alongside criticisms of weakness.

However, Greg is a friend whose ideas – even those I disagree with – I don’t mind returning to on occasion, if only because the concerns that motivate them and the passion that propels them are inspiring. Here I’d like to reflect a bit upon a particular phrase Greg uses to describe the Cross as God’s “taking responsibility for the world’s evil.” For example:

[T]he fact that the Son took responsibility for all the evil that he as Creator allowed to come to pass in his creation entails that the Father and Spirit, in their own unique ways, also took responsibility for all this evil, though they are no more morally culpable for any of it than is the Son.

Or here:

God assumed responsibility for all that he allowed to take place in his creation.

The idea derives ultimately from Greg’s belief that God creates freely, unnecessarily. That’s important, because the question of why God would take responsibility for a necessary God-world relationship (as proposed by standard Process metaphysics) never really arises. But for someone like Greg who espouses the (quite orthodox belief in the) utter gratuity of God’s choice to create, the question of God’s “taking responsibility” for the absolute mess the world introduces a challenge. Consider:

  • God creates freely and unnecessarily.
  • Creation freely corrupts itself and becomes overwhelmed by violence and suffering.

The freedom involved in the latter would be explanation enough for some, maybe most. But Greg believes that though we are endowed with the freedom to self-determine (which makes us and not God morally culpable for our individual choices), there remains an additional factor that we need to account for:

  • The eruption of evil was inevitable.

Over top all of humanity’s particular free choices stands the all-embracing statistical inevitability of sin and violence. Given the precarious condition of our origins (human weakness, finitude, ignorance, basic appetites and drives, the influence of socialization, the Satanic corruption of matter, and more), sooner or later creation would go off the rails. Greg may be an open theist who holds the future to be (partly) open, but he maintains the causal closure of the world’s descent into evil given these factors. God knows human sin and vice will inevitably erupt, and it is this inevitability that God freely creates and (I will suggest regarding his view) what God takes responsibility for.

van-gogh-pietaIt’s true of course, in an almost trivial sense, that God takes responsibility for what God does if by that we mean to say that God’s actions are fully informed, fully intended, fully acknowledged, fully his own, utterly embraced – entailments and all. But this is not news. The staunchest classical theist would affirm it.

But this is not what Greg means by saying God “takes responsibility for evil.” What Greg means, I gather, is that God assumes something approaching a moral responsibility for the world’s evil and suffering. In suffering the despair of godforsakeness, God suffers his own free choice to create, and this responsibility has a definite moral shape to it. God didn’t have to create but he did so knowing things would go desperately wrong. Thus (and this “thus” reveals the logic of God’s “responsibility” in Greg’s view) God suffers for us by suffering for having freely created us. That is at least part of the logic at work. Greg explains further:

[O]nly by affirming the authenticity of Jesus’ God-forsakenness can we affirm that God has fully entered into, fully experienced, fully embraced and fully redeemed the God-forsakenness of the world. Because the Son experienced the horror of God-forsakenness, and because the Father experienced the horror of forsaking his Son, we can affirm that “even Auschwitz is taken up into the grief of the Father, the surrender of the Son and the power of the Spirit.” [cf. Moltmann] In the nightmarish separation of the Father and Son, he writes, we can see that “the whole uproar of history,” with all of its unthinkable atrocities, is embraced “within God.” [cf. Moltmann] In other words, the authenticity of the Jesus’ abandonment on the cross means that God is a God who is entering into and embracing our hell. And its only because of this that we can be confident that God has poured himself out completely in working to redeem us from our hell.

A few thoughts in response. First, it’s important to note that such claims as Greg makes in this last quote are nowhere found in the New Testament. Are they legitimate inferences drawn from biblical passages? Examining this question would take me outside the narrow interest of this post, and I’ve already reviewed CWG elsewhere and responded to key biblical passages (2Cor 5.21’s “God made Jesus to become sin”; Gal 3.13’s “Christ’s became a curse”; the Cry of Dereliction in Mk 15.34|Mt 27.46). Such passages needn’t imply that the Triune relations suffer the curse of godforsakeness which is the intrinsic consequence of our sin.

I am, secondly, more interested in exploring the nature of this suffering as a “taking of responsibility for evil” and the assumptions behind viewing it in such terms. True, Greg notes that God cannot be morally culpable for any of the particular evils of free agents. However, over top our particularity is the inevitability of sin and evil as such. Though God may not be responsible for the former, he is for the latter, and this gives every appearance of being moral in nature. Consider the gravity of the consequences God suffers and why. What constitutes this gravity in Greg’s project? What reality makes God’s suffering godforsakeness a “responsibility”? It would seem that since the inevitability of the depths of evil and suffering derives from God’s free choice to create, God owes it to the world (morally, not logically – given the gratuity of God’s choice to create and the wretched mess we made of ourselves) to suffer the godforsakeness we suffer.

It is important to say that this responsibility is beyond the fact that our salvation requires a demonstration of love sufficient to address our addiction and bondage to sin and violence. Here things get interesting inside Greg’s view. Certainly our created and fallen state presents natural conditions God must accommodate to rescue us from that state, (God’s redemptive manifestation to us must be embodied, human, finite – as opposed to be incarnate as a cow or a porpoise). Greg recognizes these. However, these include the particular extent and nature of God’s suffering (the reducing of God’s ad intra triune experience to the fragmentation and despair of godforsakeness). That God suffer so is entirely dictated by our condition.

But this leaves the “taking responsibility for sin” ungrounded. There’s no truth of human fallenness that makes it obvious that our rescue requires that God suffer the particular godforsakeness and despair which are the consequences for us of our evil. It appears that what ultimately grounds the necessity that God suffer in this particular godforsaken sense is the gratuity of creating a world bound inevitably to do great violence and suffer immeasurable evil. Because God is not culpable for particular human evils but must suffer infinitely to assume all human (and animal) suffering and godforsakeness, the responsibility God assumes in suffering so would be grounded antecedently in the very inevitability that supervenes upon the entire “the whole uproar of history.” This, not anything human beings require per se, appears to define why God must suffer so.

For Greg everything rides on it being the case that on the Cross God assumes this responsibility through suffering the despair of godforsakeness intrinsic to our sinful choices. The very “authenticity” of Jesus’ suffering as a redemptive act, its very ‘saving efficacy’, requires that God experience the combined sum of the world’s godforsakenness. We get a clue toward the end of the previous quote from Greg into what constitutes the link between God’s godforsakeness and our godforsakeness in terms of “responsibility.” God’s suffering must be “authentic” relative to our need. And it is only authentic if it is equivalent (same despair, same godforsakeness, same crisis of identity, same loss of hope, same pain), but infinitely so for God of course because he has the entirety of human and animal suffering to assume). Only if we perceive the Cross as being this may we have “confiden[ce] that God has poured himself out completely in working to redeem us from our hell.” This “confidence,” for Greg, is how faith appropriates the healing, reconciling work of the Cross.

But why suppose any of this? It’s not an explicit claim of any NT writer. And it isn’t obvious that our being reconciled to God or healed from our own godforsakeness requires that God be equally as godforsaken as us. Why must our healing from godforsakeness require the multiplication of godforsakeness in God? We don’t universally assume that acts of saving or healing of an inter-personal, loving nature are only authentically transforming and redeeming if the gracious saving party shares every consequence intrinsic to the offending party’s choices.

We do agree, with Greg, that it is not anything human beings do to Jesus that saves us, rather it is what the Father is doing “behind the scenes.” But where Greg sees the Father abandoning Jesus behind the scene of the the human abandonment of Jesus, we see the Father doing something else, namely, not abandoning Jesus but empowering him to endure human rejection “for the joy set before him,” to forgive those lynching him, to offer paradise to those who entreat him. On the Cross, Jesus still “does what he sees the Father doing.” But on Greg’s view, as I understand it, Jesus sees the Father abandoning him but does something else, namely, not abandon others but forgive and offer paradise instead.

The more I’ve pondered these differences with Greg, the more I come to recognize the more fundamental difference from which our other disagreements derive. Surprisingly, it is not that Greg is a Kenoticist and we are not, nor is it that we believe in God’s undiminished triune delight and Greg does not. It is, I believe, our very different views of the human predicament. Just what is the “fallen human condition” the rescue from which we give the name “salvation” to? And how does Jesus’ dying and rising together heal that condition? For us, the notion of godforsakeness (viz., that God must, objectively speaking, become “cursed” [Gal 3.13] by experiencing the despair of ‘forsaking’ and ‘being forsaken by’ God) that informs Greg’s whole project, is the very myth we need saving from. Where, for Greg, God’s own godforsakeness constitutes our salvation, for us godforsakeness is what Jesus’ death and resurrection expose to be the myth that enslaves us – and one doesn’t expose myths by believing them.

All that said, let me shift directions here —

Part of Greg’s project involves a hermeneutical re-centering, a cruciform hermeneutic. The cruciform hermeneutic makes what happens on the Cross the hermeneutical center (or “lens”) through which everything else in the Bible is read. I’ve already reviewed why I think this is impossible, but I though I might find it helpful to turn this entire dilemma of Greg’s on its head. Instead of God taking responsibility for creating, what would happen if we view God as taking responsibility for being created? That is, in Christ, God the human being fulfills humanity’s responsibility before God to present itself humbly, obedient and trusting in the face of all the vicissitudes inherent in that nature, and fulfills human nature’s calling and purpose. In this case Jesus’ death fulfills created nature, loving and trusting God within the constraints of created finitude. Christ, the God-Man, represents creation to God, takes responsibility for being creatED (not for creatING), unites creation to God, and in so doing reconciles the world to God, not God to the world.

Am I suggesting that we replace the Cross with something else, the Resurrection perhaps, as “the” hermeneutical center? No. I’m suggesting (following James Alison) that we define the center phenomenologically as the act of faith integrating incarnation, passion, resurrection through knowledge of the One Christ – the “risen-crucified” One. These events (atonement, ministry, passion, resurrection, ascension) are all temporally distinct but aesthetically one.

vgflowersWhat do I mean by temporally distinct but aesthetically one? Take the transforming effects of beauty encountered in, say, Van Gogh’s “Vase with Cornflower and Poppies” (1887). I’ve stood before this painting many time, completely lost in the moment. I can’t tell you how beautiful it is.

Consider – the hermeneutical center of its beauty is not divisible into any of the temporally distinct steps it took to produce it. Its beauty – which is what we relate to, what we believe in, that which saves us – is indivisibly one. We could (and we do) separate the painting into its contributing events (gathering and grinding the raw materials to make the colors, mixing the colors on the palette, composing the under layers, sketching the outline, the particular brush techniques used, filling in the main features, adding the final touches, and so forth). But to do this – and this is the point – is to step away from the immediate experience of its beauty.

Furthermore, no one’s experience of the beauty of this painting is reducible to a hermeneutic that views one of these steps as the primary “lens” through which the others are defined or their beauty understood. Yet this, it seems to me, is precisely what Greg attempts theologically, and it is aesthetically violent. There is no possible way for faith to apprehend Christ in only one of any of the contributing events of his existence as a human being (incarnation, ministry, passion, resurrection). To try to elevate one hermeneutically is to do violence to them all.

In the end, then, there is no cruciform hermeneutic, that is, no hermeneutic of transforming faith that derives from the Cross alone. There is “a” hermeneutic – a way to read/interpret life – which one can derive merely from the Cross, yes. We see it in the two on the road to Emmaus before they recognize the risen Christ, and we note it in the disciples crouched in fear and uncertainty before the risen Christ arrives to say “Peace.” But a cruciform hermeneutic that takes the Cross as a saving act of love through which lens all else is to be interpreted? Quite impossible. It’s impossible because to read the Cross as a “saving event” is already to read it through another lens, a resurrection hermeneutic. There’s no getting around it. The Cross only becomes (viz., is revealed to be) a saving act when faith interprets the Cross in light of the resurrection. We wouldn’t possibly know God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself apart from the interpretive light of the risen Jesus. So all of Greg’s descriptions of the Cross as God’s love stooping to accommodate us in our weakness, etc., – all true – are by definition post-resurrection readings of the Cross.

So, the hermeneutical center cannot be a single proposition or event, but rather must be faith perceiving itself as apprehended by the risen-slaughtered One, and so not taking responsibility for having created if that means God must become cursed and share in the despair of godforsakenness. There is only need for that (and arguably not even then) if one insists on a reason to believe, or for the meaning for faith, or for redemption, that derives solely from the Cross (i.e., the Cross interpreted linearly with its doors closed to the resurrection). But that would be like looking to the weight required to press organic raw materials until they yield their beautiful reds, yellows, and blues as “the” explanation for everything else that goes into a Van Gogh painting, including why it’s beautiful.

The difference between “appearing to” and “being seen”

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Alex Grey’s artwork can be unsettling. I keep coming back to it, however, not in a freak-show kind of way, but because his work silences me and makes me reflect in such positive ways (on the meaning of existence, the essential connectedness of all things, the transcendent presence of the One doing the seeing, etc.). Sometimes a work of art will inspire my thoughts. Other times I have thoughts that inspire the choice of a particular picture. With this post it’s the latter. I went looking for an image that would capture my thoughts and – no surprise in this case – Alex Grey came to mind.

There is a difference between “appearing to” and “being seen.” The latter is consistent with being a passive object of perception. I can be seen without permitting it, without even knowing it. God cannot be seen (objectified) in this passive sense.

The only way to see God is to see him seeing you

…to have him “appear to” you, to apprehend him through the experiencing of being apprehended by him. But radical, gracious givenness infinitely precedes every progress we make toward beatific vision, which is always a “being seen.” It’s meant to unsettle us. If it doesn’t, then you’re mistaking something created and finite for God, which is what we give the name idolatry to.

We are thought by him, not he by us. Our best ‘third-person’ reflections (what we call “God-talk”) are really only vestiges of a divine invitation preceding our first thought, crumbs left to guide the hospitable and seeking heart on a journey that ends with us in full view of him, not him in full view of us, where we discover that finding him is to find oneself apprehended by him.

The same is true with the resurrected appearances. Christ “appears to” but is not passively observed. Christ gives himself to be seen. He is, to borrow Robinette’s phrase, “tactile and transcendent.” Because the resurrected Christ is the end and fulfillment of Creation, because he is the Age to Come, because the resurrection does not return him to his former state of existence, the entirety of his embodied existence becomes the Eschaton. He cannot “be seen” passively by this present age, “uncovered” by us. The Eschaton cannot be spied upon. This reversal is a spiritual exercise – a learning how to “be approached” instead of “approaching.”

The loss of control is unsettling. Like a Grey painting, it overwhelms our horizons and perspectives. When you see that your seeing is a ‘being seen’ (graciously and benevolently), there remains no place or location in the painting that affords your perspective any measure of autonomous control. You are beheld, and in being beheld become beholden to the immeasurable love that sees you and all things.

This is what I take ‘apophaticism’ to be, without which being seeing gets reduced to our seeing, and that gets the creator-created order of grounding, nature and grace, creation’s freedom and final end, entirely (and despairingly) backwards.

The Intelligence of the victim

Emmaus1I’ve mentioned James Alison (British Catholic theologian) before. I like the (Girardian) way he thinks, and he has a wonderful ability to discuss complex matters in a simple and enlightening way. I’ve also mentioned a few times being involved in a group discussion on Paul Hessert’s deeply challenging Christ and the End of Meaning. In this post the two come together. There’s an interesting comment Peter Rollins makes in this Youtube discussion of Hessert’s book in response to comments about Jesus predicting his upcoming death and resurrection. I’ve been giving his comments some thought.

Rollins is uncomfortable with the idea that Jesus faces death confident of the outcome, his resurrection. Rollins wants the most radical deconstruction possible of Jesus’ experience of himself and his world. The question comes at minute 15:20 in the Youtube above. The first guy who responds to the question (at 16:00) suggests he has “critical-historical” reasons for thinking Jesus couldn’t have predicted his own resurrection. Rollins follows that up (17:09 to 18:16) with a similar response, essentially saying that the gospel records of Jesus predicting his resurrection are attempts to find his death “meaningful,” hence the attempt to mitigate the scandal of the Cross begins in the NT itself. It seems that Rollins thinks the gospel accounts of Jesus predicting his resurrection are fabricated attempts by the early church to construe the Cross as meaningful, as part of a divine answer to human brokenness, and Christ’s death as something other than the absolute deconstruction of his identity, purpose, and hope. In Rollins’ view the message of the Cross was perverted rather immediately by the gospel writers themselves. What the Cross represents, Rollins appears to maintain, is something most Christians fail to admit, namely, an end to meaning, certainty, hope, identity, and purpose.

I’m still wading through Hessert’s book, and I’m unsure of whether his point is the same as Rollins’. But either way, this is an impossible – and unnecessary – sell: the gospel writers fundamentally misread the crucifixion along the lines of the Greek search for “wisdom” (knowledge) and the Jewish demand for “signs” (power), condemned by St. Paul, in a despairing attempt make sense of the world and address the deepest human desire for meaning and fulfillment. Jesus cannot have anticipated his own resurrection because that would mean his having endured the Cross within a framework of meaning not reducible to the despair, hopelessness, and meaninglessness that life inevitably confronts us with.

Enter James Alison. I was re-reading through his Knowing Jesus (1994). Much of his Ch. 2 relates to questions regarding the gospel accounts of Jesus’ predictions of his cross and resurrection. So I’m connecting Alison to Hessert. I earlier agreed that Alison strikes gold in arguing that any attempt to make a reading of the crucifixion “the” established center in light of which other events (Incarnation and the Resurrection for example) are only then to be interpreted is problematic, that crucifixion and resurrection are a single center – a single reality which is the center: Christ the risen-slaughtered one. On the one hand, only the resurrected Jesus can tell us what his death means. On the other hand, it is only as crucified that the living Jesus tells us anything.

remake-of-doubting-st-thomas

By the “intelligence of [Christ] the victim,” Alison means a perspective, or framework of meaning and identity, outside of which Jesus never related to himself, to God or to the world. It is the ‘who’ that defined Jesus’ ‘why’ which the Cross could neither deconstruct nor negate. Indeed, it is “the joy set before him for which he endured the Cross” (Heb 2.14). This (cf. also Jn 16.31-33) just is the gospel’s assurance that how God was with Christ in his suffering is how God will be with us in ours. But for others this very assurance is just a religious version of the same failing narrative imposed upon us by a culture.

I’ll end there and leave you with portions of Alison’s Ch. 2:

One of the things that happened as a result of the resurrection was a shift in the possibility of human knowledge. That is to say, before the resurrection of our Lord, there was an area of human life that was radically unknown, maybe even unknowable. And this area of human unknowing was laid bare, opened up, by the resurrection…

What [the resurrection] did was to recast the existing belief in the resurrection in the person of Jesus, so that from now on the resurrection was understood to be not simply something that happens next, after death, but something that happens owing to a relationship with the resurrection of Jesus…

I take it for granted that Jesus’ resurrection focalized an understanding of the afterlife – but that is not what I’m interested in pointing out here. I would like to refer to what I mean when I say that something radically new became known by using the phrase, ‘the intelligence of the victim’. As a result of the resurrection of Jesus the disciples underwent a profound shift in their understanding, such that they were able to understand something about human life and relationships that had never really been understood before. That something was, to put it simply, the relationship between God and victims.

The gospels are all quite clear on this. Until the resurrection, the disciples did not understand what was going on with Jesus. From the resurrection onwards, they were suddenly able to understand something quite new about Jesus, and about God, and about human beings. The principal evidence for this is that the gospels show simultaneously the non-understanding of the disciples, sometimes the misunderstanding, and at the same time, they show a profound understanding by Jesus of exactly what was going on, where he was going, what was going to happen to him and why.

Now, these two understandings, present in the same texts, are not there because the disciples didn’t understand, but preserved Jesus’ words, so that any future generation might be able to understand what was going on. No, the two understandings are there because, after the resurrection, the disciples were able to understand, and could remember the gap between their understanding then, and their understanding now. They were able to tell the story in a new unified way, from the point of view of the risen victim.

watanabeBiblical scholars seem to agree that the oldest parts of the gospels are the passion narratives, probably the Marcan passion narrative. Which one came first doesn’t matter from the present point of view. What is important is that the disciples started being able to tell the story of Jesus’ execution not from the point of view of the muddled, frightened, half-hearted semi-traitors that they all were, but from the point of view of the victim. They could suddenly see that it all made sense. Not ‘suddenly’ in the sense of in a flash, but rather in the sense of starting from a fixed point in time – the resurrection…

It was this that enabled them to go back in their memories and tell the story of Jesus as that of the self-giving, and self-revealing victim, who alone knew what was really going on. First of all they were able to tell the story of his passion in this way. The evidence for this is in the early preaching of Peter in Acts. Peter’s first speeches are full of Old Testament references showing an understanding of the crucifixion as the rejection by Israel of God’s Holy One, done in ignorance; the resurrection offers Israel an opportunity to be forgiven, and to be brought out of ignorance concerning God and sin. Time and again in the New Testament we come across the phrase ‘The stone rejected by the builders has become the head of the corner.’ The quotation is from Psalm 118, and would have been known to all those involved. Its meaning has suddenly come alive, as it is seen to reveal how the whole edifice of the understanding of Israel as God’s chosen people is recast, starting from the expelled victim.

So, the making of this man a victim, apparently in ignorance, and done to please God (Jesus had been judged a blasphemer) was in fact the condition which made it possible for God to be revealed for what he really is: the forgiving victim. This is the great irony present in all the gospels, and particularly in Luke and Acts: that by killing the Messiah, Israel was, without being aware of it, offering up the sacrifice of all sacrifices to God, the sacrifice that could become the basis for their salvation.

It is interesting to see how this understanding, the perception, or what I have called the intelligence of the victim, the victim’s own understanding, is slowly read back into the living memory of those who had been with Jesus, and who had preserved his sayings, whether by memory, or by writing them down. For all the gospels show the life of Jesus leading up to the passion. It is not as though he lived his life, and then by mistake got involved in an imbroglio in Jerusalem and so got killed. From the vantage point of the resurrection, the presence of the forgiving victim, the disciples could see that the whole drift of Jesus’ life had been towards the passion.

Now please note what I am not saying here. I am not saying that as a result of the resurrection, the disciples invented a whole set of stories about Jesus as their way of explaining the resurrection. The texts manifestly are not about the disciples’ new self-understanding, even though they do reveal that the disciples did now understand things anew. The gospels all bear witness to Jesus himself having understood all this from the beginning. That is precisely what the disciples did not understand before Jesus’ death, and did understand after his resurrection. They all bear witness to the fact that, unlike themselves, Jesus had what I have called ‘the intelligence of the victim’ from the beginning.

christ-is-risen-jesus-christThere are certain obvious pieces of evidence for this, such as the way in which Jesus prophesies his own forthcoming death to the disciples – passages like this from Mark 9.31-2: ‘For he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of man will be delivered into the hand of men, and they will kill him; and when he is killed, after three days he will rise.” But they did not understand the saying, and they were afraid to ask him’. These make explicit that Jesus knew where he was going, and what was to happen. They bear witness to the fact that the intelligence of the victim was not simply a post-resurrection understanding, but one which Jesus had all along. Jesus’ understanding had probably been nourished by the texts of the Old Testament as well…

This is terribly important, since it means that what I have called the ‘intelligence of the victim’ is not only a post-resurrection intelligence. It was a pre-resurrection intelligence in Jesus alone, not understood at all by his disciples….

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The great line about ‘scandal’, which has become well known, comes in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. There he says, ‘but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block (Greek: skandalon) to the Jews and folly to the Gentiles (1 Cor. 1.23). Now this means that one of the effects of the resurrection on the disciples was that it removed the skandalon, without taking it away, which is another way of saying what I have tried to say earlier, that Jesus was present as crucified Lord who was risen. The stumbling block was how to follow someone who had died. How to follow someone who had ended in failure. This takes us back to the disciples on Easter Sunday. They were scandalized, stymied. They had believed in, and followed this man, had allowed his teaching to permeate every area of their lives, and they had trusted in his ability to produce a powerful victory over his enemies, and establish the kingdom of God in Israel. They had been scandalized by his failure to do this.

The resurrection made present the crucified Lord, the failed one, as living. That is, it removed the scandal, without taking away his death. In fact, it made the dead alive as a sign that there was no scandal. It took away the last stumbling block to following Jesus, or any man, that is, the separation brought about by that man’s death…

What he gave his disciples on his resurrection, therefore, was the ability to follow him without death being a stumbling block. There was nothing left that might cause his disciples to stumble – death was swallowed up in victory. Now, see what this led them to understand: it led them to understand that all stumbling blocks – all relations where people are locked in with each other as stumbling blocks, where imitation and learning are distorted by rivalry – are related to death. The presence to them of the crucified and risen Lord was what enabled them to learn to imitate pacifically, having the deepest bonds of their relationships which were cast in modes of stumbling, loosed, so that they might no longer live towards death, but instead live with death as an incidental side issue.

Again, it is the intelligence of the victim given after the resurrection that enables them to see the whole of this healing process of discipleship in its light. It is this which enables them to see the point of the very mysterious utterance in John’s gospel: ‘It is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away the Counsellor will not come to you, but if I go, I will send him to you’. The suggestion here is that Jesus could, as a human being present with the disciples, tech them only so much…it could only go so far. There were two things militating against the imitation being complete, the possession being full. The first was that Jesus was a human being like his disciples, and therefore was other to them as any human being is to another – and thus not able to move them completely as his Father was…Jesus, because he was a human being, could not, at least until he was killed, completely possess his disciples.

The second reason that the disciples’ imitation of Jesus could not be complete while he was alive was that in any human relation, the knowledge that death will supervene, will separate, is an ultimate factor, one that cannot be bypassed. There is always, in any human relationship of dedication, an element of the provisional because of the certainty of death…So, there is a certain stumbling block to a perfect imitation posed by the simple fact of being a human this side of death. This was removed by the resurrection. The presence of the crucified and risen Lord made available the possibility of a perfect human imitation of Jesus, because it made available an imitation without the stumbling block of death, and with the possibility of the possession of the disciple by Jesus at the level of freedom. That is to say, after the period of Jesus’ physical appearances, he was no longer ‘other’ to the disciples as we are to each other, but was ‘other’ only in the way that God is, beyond the possibility of rivalry, who moves us from within, to will and to work. For the first time a human imitation became possible that need have no element of rivalry.

doubtingthomasIn the light of this, it is possible to see how the disciples came to understand the relationship between the stumbling block of Jesus’ death, which had been a stumbling block for them until it was overcome by the resurrection, and all the stumbling blocks which men and women put in each other’s way. Precisely because we desire to be, to live, we cannot imitate each other pacifically, and thus learn from each other, but always have to get ahead so as to avoid death. So, we cannot be gratuitous with each other, but always have to insist on rights, on everyone getting what they deserve, on not doing more than we have to. Our imitation, which is the only way as humans we learn, from our tenderest infancy upwards, is always provisional, because we are only doing it for our advantage, which we would quickly use against our teacher if the need arose, and so we guarantee our sense of being by an imitation turned rivalistic, which locks us into all sorts of conflicts. At the bottom of this spiral is death…

Learning to follow Jesus is learning how to receive the gift of life, of being, which we inescapably desire, as something given, something which can only be received by a non-rivalistic, pacific imitation of someone who makes this imitation possible by being beyond death.

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What links the Father and Jesus, therefore, is the intelligence of the victim. It is in the light of the intelligence of the victim that we can begin to understand the relationship between the two — the love for us that involved sending Jesus, the love for Jesus that involved sending, and raising him up, the love which Jesus had for his Father which involved giving himself for us knowingly to victimization. It is this knowledge of the intelligence of the victim which sets us free: the truth which sets us free is the truth of the victim. The Counselor, the Spirit of truth, who is the advocate for the defense against the lynching of the world, this is the intelligence of the victim, bearing witness to the truth which flows from the victim. It is for this reason that Jesus told his disciples in Luke 12:11, ‘And when they bring you before the authorities, do not be anxious how or what you are to answer, or what you are to say; for the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say’. And no wonder that the Holy Spirit will do just that; it will not be a sort of additional function of the Holy Spirit to do that as well as all sorts of other things. As I hope has become clear by now, the Holy Spirit is the intelligence of the victim.

The Self: A caption box

paper_speech_bubbles_vector_548315I’ve been reflecting on discussions I’ve been in regarding the meaning (or meaninglessness), structure (or not), of the Self. I haven’t constructed an air-tight syllogism, but I wanted to summarize some thoughts based on the conversations I’ve been so enjoying.

As I thought about an image to ‘capture’ (pun intended) my thoughts, I stumbled into a page full of ‘caption boxes’, also called ‘speech bubbles’. They’re used by cartoonists to capture and identify the speech of characters. As I pondered these figures (in the context of recent conversations – I’m not sure why) the thought occurred to me that the ‘Self’ (that structured ‘someone’ who is the subject of our conscious, interior experience) can profitably be thought of as a caption box, a speech bubble. We’re full of things to say, and we say them. But there’s something about the givenness of the Self (its createdness, its ecstatic nature, its irreducible teleological orientation and aesthetic appetite) that suggests not only does the Self speak, but it is spoken. And so I say the Self is a caption box, a speech bubble. Question is – whose caption box am I? Whose speech creates us? Hence the progression of my reflections in what follows.

1) I am.

2) I am created (i.e., I do not create or sustain myself).

3) So, I am given (i.e., given existence).

4) So, existence is a benevolent gift.

5) So, my “I am” = “I am created and sustained by some uncreated, gift-giving love.”

6) There is a benevolent, Uncreated “I am” who is the Gift-Giver and Life-Sustainer.

7) Only this Uncreated “I am” can tell me who I am.

8) Christ’s “I am” was one with the Uncreated “I am” (as demonstrated to be the case by his resurrection; Rom 1.4).

9) We murdered Christ but could not silence his “I am.”

10) Christ-crucified demonstrates the indestructible love of the Uncreated “I am” who grounds and sustains every created “I am.”

11) Only the risen Jesus can tell us what his death means (i.e., only an experience of the living Jesus can mediate ‘Christ-crucified’ to us).

12) Through Christ, my “I am” (from [1] above) participates in the Uncreated “I am” of the Son’s eternal “Abba, Father” (Rom 8.15) revealed in, and mediated to us via, the Incarnation/Cross/Resurrection, and is thus transformed into “I, not I, but Christ.” (Gal 2.20).

Nous Christou

imageThe Spirit so radically expands the horizons of awareness, of space and time, of life and death…that such reductionistic notions become almost trivial. Thus it should be stressed that the main thrust of 1 Cor. 2 is not negative but overwhelmingly affirmative. It is not to denigrate nous or mind but to proclaim what is in the nous Christou [the mind of Christ]. It is here that one sees and participates in “what eye has not seen and ear has not heard.” What has not entered into the human mind, God has prepared for those who love him. This is open to those whose spirits, in agreement with the Holy Spirit, search out the deep things of creation and of God, and whose relationship to God preserves the vital relationality that marks them as bearers of the image of God. To be endowed by the Holy Spirit with the nous Christou is not other-worldly, but it is instead to perceive and to behold this world as if for the first time because it is knowing the world through the Logos, the One through whom all things have been made. The natural order then becomes, remarkably, the creation of God in which every moment is sustained by God’s grace alone.

James Loder, The Knight’s Move